PRESS CONFERENCE WITH SENATOR BARACK OBAMA (D-IL); REP. MIKE THOMPSON (D-CA); REP. PATRICK MURPHY (D-PA)
SEN. OBAMA: Good morning, everybody. All right. Everybody all set?
Good morning. I'm proud to stand here today with Congressmen Mike Thompson and Patrick Murphy, two decorated war veterans, to talk about our plan for ending this war in Iraq. For too many hard months, the American people have waited, and they've been patient with this war. We have given chance after chance for a resolution that has not come and, more importantly, watched with horror and grief at the tragic loss of thousands of brave young American soldiers. And we've come to the realization, shared today by so many Republicans and Democrats, generals and experts, that there's no military solution to the conflict, that no amount of American soldiers can solve the political differences at the heart of someone else's civil war. Our best hope in Iraq is to pressure the warring factions to reach a political settlement. And the only way to do that is to let the Iraqis know that the days of our open-ended commitment have come to a close.
Our plan accomplishes this goal. It would not only place a cap on the number of troops in Iraq and stop the escalation but, as importantly, it would also begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces with the goal of removing all U.S. combat forces from Iraq by March 31st of next year, consistent with the expectations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that the president so assiduously ignored.
The redeployment of troops to the United States -- Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region -- would begin no later than May 1st of this year toward the end of the time frame I first proposed in a speech more than two months ago. In the midst of chaos, this redeployment remains our best leverage to pressure the Iraqi government to achieve the political settlement between its warring factions, that can slow the bloodshed and promote stability.
Our plan allows for a limited number of U.S. troops to remain in Iraq as basic force protection, to engage in counterterrorism and to continue the training of Iraqi security forces. And if the Iraqis are in fact successful in meeting the 13 benchmarks for progress laid out by the Bush administration itself, this plan also allows for the temporary suspension of the redeployment, provided that Congress agrees that the benchmarks have actually been met and that the suspension is in the national security interests of the United States.
We think that this is a measured and responsible approach to what I think all of us recognize now is a very difficult situation. It allows us to send a clear message to the Iraqi government that we're not going to be there in perpetuity. There's specificity to it. And at the same time, it allows commanders on the field to make adjustments depending on whether or not the Iraqi government is putting our troops and the Iraqi troops in a position where they can actually succeed in providing some stability to the region. So, we think this is the alternative that the president continues to say we have not offered.
Here is it, Mr. President, and we hope you consider it as we hope our colleagues in the Senate and the House consider it.
So with that, I'd like to turn it over to Congressman Thompson.
REP. THOMPSON: Thank you, Senator.
I'm proud to be here today with someone as Senator Obama, who not only has the passion to deal with this issue but the courage to deal with this issue, and with my buddy Patrick Murphy, who is truly a war hero and also a fellow paratrooper. I think it's a good group to put this measure forward.
As the senator said, it outlines a clear plan. It clearly shifts the security responsibility to the Iraqis, something that's been missing. It puts more focus on diplomacy, something that's been completely absent. And it's a plan that will get our troops home as safely and as quickly as possible. It provides a strong alternative to the president's open-ended policy in Iraq and his wrong-headed plans for escalation. And time is long overdue to take this matter up. We need to be running the war in Iraq and the redeployment in Iraq with strong strategies, not cute slogans.
This also deals with the issue of the fact that this war is cheating future generations out of opportunities. It physically hurts out ability to restore America's greatness starting right here at home. As I say, it's long overdue, and it's a strategy for getting our men and women home as quickly and safely as possible.
Now, I'd like to be here saying that I've helped write a bill that brings our troops home today, but the reality is that's impossible. I didn't think we should go. I thought we went wrong, and I want to get our troops home as soon as we possibly can. But after four years of war in Iraq, that's just physically impossible to do. But this bill recognizes that a phased redeployment is possible and puts in place a timeline that's practical and that is realistic.
But make no mistake about it. It is limited, and our combat troops under this plan will be home and will be out of Iraq at the end of March of next year. I think this is a bold measure, but not nearly as bold as some may think. The fact of the matter is we've been spun so much on this issue out of the White House and all of these ideas of non-binding resolutions and et cetera, this plan probably sounds more bold than it actually is. It's good, sound public policy, and it's good, sound public policy that the American public has been asking for. So, I would urge all my colleagues to stand up and support this good measure.
Now, it's my honor to introduce a true war hero, the first and the only Iraq war veteran to serve in the United States House of Representatives and in Congress, Patrick Murphy -- as I said earlier, a fellow paratrooper. Patrick was with the 82nd Airborne in Iraq. He was awarded the Bronze Star. He has taught constitutional law at West Point, and he's also a colleague of mine on the Intelligence Committee and someone who brings a great deal of portfolio to that committee.
REP. MURPHY: Thank you, gentleman.
Thank you, Senator Obama and thank you, Congressman Thompson.
I think it's interesting. I'm standing here with a fellow paratrooper and also a fellow constitutional law professor, and I think it's important when we look at, you know, what we can do as a Congress today.
First off, good morning, everybody. I am Patrick Murphy. I am the congressman from the 8th District of Pennsylvania which is Bucks County, a small slice of Montgomery County and a part of northeast Philadelphia.
We're here today because we want to stop President Bush's escalation of the troops, and we want to start bringing the troops home. Iraq has turned into a civil war, and our troops are in the middle of it as the referees. I know, because I was there. I was there with the 2nd Brigade Combat Team as a captain in the 82nd Airborne Division in Al Rashid, Baghdad in 2003 until I came home in 2004. I lost 19 of my fellow paratroopers in our unit that didn't come home with us. I used to lead convoys up and down what's known as "ambush alley" looking out for roadside bombs.
More Iraqis need to come off the sidelines to fight for their country. Once we make it clear to them that we're not going to be there forever, they will understand that it's time for them to step up and to adjust.
A couple of weeks ago, we heard the president deliver his State of the Union address, and he said he wanted to reach out to Democrats to work together. And we stand here ready to work together with the president and with the administration. But the one thing that is nonnegotiable is the stated course in Iraq.
Now, almost four years, four long years later since it started, the American people, the Iraq Study Group, the generals are clear that we need a new direction. Our bill will change the course in Iraq to provide that new direction that is needed. It combines a sense of urgency, decisive toughness, and it extracts ourselves from the middle of a civil war.
With that, I believe that we will take some questions. Thank you very much.
Q Your plan, from what I understand, essentially -- (inaudible) -- in less time with less troops. Now, the Iraq Study Group did say they could support -- (inaudible). So where do you guys disagree --
SEN. OBAMA: No, no. Look, we take the president's benchmarks. But the difference is, we actually impose some consequences for failure to meet the benchmarks. And that is something that, when I met with the president before the State of the Union address, as he was starting to shape his escalation strategy, I pressed him on. "Mr. President, if you send more troops in, what are the consequences of the Iraqi government failing to meet its obligations to come up with a political accommodation?" And there were none written into his plan.
And that's what's been missing throughout this process, any sense of accountability, any sense that there needs to be measurable progress, any sense that the Iraqi government has to stand up and Shi'a, Sunni and Kurd have to come together for a political accommodation.
So what our bill does is it takes the president at his word that he thinks these are the benchmarks that are going to be required for success, but it ties it very specifically to U.S. troop presence. And what we say is we're going to start a phased redeployment, starting on May 1st; that the target goal will be to have all combat troops out by the end of the first quarter of next year.
But what we include is a provision that says if these benchmarks are being met, so that, in fact, there's an opportunity for success because the political dynamic has changed and there is a rationale and a justification for continued U.S. troop presence, then that's an adjustment we're willing to make.
Look, nobody here wants to see failure in Iraq. We would all love to see a stabilized, functioning Iraq. But what we don't see is the possibility that that good result is going to occur simply by hoping, and it's not going to occur because we've thrown 20,000 additional troops out without a strategy to back it up.
Q Senator Obama, do you --
SEN. OBAMA: Go ahead -- (inaudible).
Q (Off mike.)
SEN. OBAMA: I don't think it sends a mixed message. What we're saying here is that the troops on the ground, we have an ironclad commitment to. We want to make absolutely sure that they've got the armor and they've got the equipment that allows them to succeed. But what we're saying is, in order to protect our troops, in order to stand by our troops, they also have to have a strategy that has the potential of working. And that, I think, is what's been missing.
So, yes, my intention is to get this vote -- get an up-or-down vote on this bill. And whether it's attaching it to the Iraq supplemental, if we have other opportunities, I will be discussing with Harry Reid and the rest of the Democratic caucus leadership to find out where is going to be the best opportunity to attach this. But we want this acted on. This is not a symbolic vote. This is what I think has the best chance of bringing our troops home and achieving a changed dynamic, a changed situation in Iraq.
Anybody want to add --
REP. THOMPSON: I'd like to say one thing on that as far as achieving success. I've seen something in this president that I've seen in presidents past. As a combat veteran from Vietnam, that scares the hell out of me. We need to recognize that American military forces cannot win this war. It's going to require that the Iraqis step up and assume responsibility for their national security. That's the most, I think, significant portion of this bill. It pushes them up to the forefront. It makes them do their job. If they don't, if they don't, it doesn't work at all.
Q Senator Obama --
REP. MURPHY: Can I -- and I think it's important to note that we're talking about three pieces, this non-binding resolution. We all talk about the surge that the president wants, and that is important three steps of the military option there, which we are against. But we also need to look at what's going on with the economics, what this bill talks about, that they have to spend $10 billion in Iraq for the reconstruction, the economic reconstruction. But it also calls for a special envoy, because it also takes the political solution.
What we need is not a surge in troops but a surge in diplomacy. And that's what this bill does, and it does absolutely have teeth in it. And I look forward to working very hard to make sure this becomes a reality.
Q To follow up on that, you are all making the point that what you've introduced does have teeth in it. So doesn't that kind of speak to the Republicans' argument that what the Democrats are trying to do on the Senate floor yesterday is kind of pointless because it doesn't have teeth in it, that it's symbolic?
SEN. OBAMA: Look, I think that a non-binding resolution has merit in registering to the White House that, for the first time, a bipartisan majority in the Senate has said, "Mr. President, your approach is not working." And I think there's enormous political significance to that.
Now, as a practical matter, what is true is that the president can choose to ignore that message. And that's why I think it's important to have additional legislation. But I think that it would be significant if we had a situation in which 60 or 70 U.S. senators stand up and say, "Mr. President, this has not worked and we've got to take this in a fundamentally different direction."
Q What do you think the political significance is of -- (inaudible)?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, if you actually did a head count, if you did a poll of the 100 United States senators and whether they approve of this escalation of troops, and they were forced to answer yes or no, I think you'd have a pretty clear majority that would say, "No, Mr. President, this is not going to work."
It would mirror the American people, who have said consistently in poll after poll they don't think this is going to work. It would mirror some of the objections of experts in the field, both military and civilian, who've said, "We don't think that this is going to work."
So the fact that procedurally it's gotten tangled up, that is one of the specialties of the United States Senate is tamping down clear statements with a bunch of gobbledygook. But the fact is that, you know, if there was a straight up-or-down vote, I think that you'd see a majority. And my hope is that we can untangle some of these various resolutions to get that clear statement.
Q Mr. Murphy --
Q Senator, does that mean that you guys can get the Republican support -- (inaudible)?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, obviously not this resolution per se. I mean, we had that test yesterday. We weren't able to get the 60 votes that were necessary.
Q (Off mike.)
SEN. OBAMA: Oh, for this bill. Well, I think things are going to evolve very rapidly. And one of the tragedies of Iraq -- and I think these two gentlemen would agree -- whenever you think it's gotten as bad as it can get, it gets worse. And if you think about the movement that's taken place in the country's attitudes and in congressional attitudes about this war just over the last six months, there's no reason not to think that that somber assessment will continue and that potentially we can gather the kind of majority support that we need to get this moved.
Q Mr. Murphy, have you had any discussion with your leadership about how this might progress procedurally on your side? And secondly, how do you -- you've been in Iraq. How do you think the troops respond, watching this press conference and watching this bill, to what might be construed as members of Congress -- I'll use the word interfering with the commander in chief. Would they see it that way, or would they appreciate what you're doing?
REP. MURPHY: As someone who was there in 138-degree heat in Baghdad, you know, to have to be focused on the mission at hand, no offense to the present company, but they're not watching CNN and Fox News. They're doing their mission.
So the fact is that they want their leadership -- they want their families back home to understand that they have members of Congress in the Senate and the House of Representatives that are fighting for them, that they're not there -- we're not back at home -- that the people down in Washington aren't forgetting them, that we're doing everything possible to make sure that we win the war on terror. And this is what this also does. It redeploys our troops out of Iraq with a time line, but it also allows us to refocus on what also is needed in Afghanistan.
Congressman Thompson talked about that we serve on the Intelligence Committee. I also serve on the Armed Services Committee. In open hearings they talk about in Afghanistan an upcoming spring offensive. They need more troops, and we're not giving it to them. We're not giving it to them because we can't afford to give it to them because we're tied up in Iraq.
We need to refocus our efforts on what's going on in the world, in that region. And that's why this approach, with the three steps, with not just the military option, what we're calling for here, but also the diplomatic surge which is needed, that special envoy that we talked about, and also the economic support and benchmarks that are there as well.
And that's why this bill is practical. This bill reaches across every single military commander -- General Abizaid, Colin Powell, the Iraq Study Group. They all are very clear that this does not need a military solution. It needs a political one. And that's what our bill addresses, and that's why I'm proud to lend my name to it and work -- (inaudible) -- to make sure that this does happen and it is successful.
Q Have you had any conversations on -- (inaudible) --
REP. MURPHY: I have talked to Speaker Pelosi, and Mike and I serve in the Blue Dog coalition. I've talked formally with other members of Congress. Speaker Pelosi has made it very clear that she's open for discussion and she's open for leadership on this issue. And we look forward to providing that leadership with this bill.
Q Congressmen and Senator Obama, do you feel that the House -- (inaudible)?
SEN. OBAMA: Mike, why don't you start with yours?
REP. THOMPSON: I don't know what the plan is in regard to the non-binding vote. And I'll second the senator's comments. I think it's important that we get people on record stating their true belief on this issue. I'd like to see the Republicans step up and cast their true vote. I'd like to see the requisite number of them take a walk down to the White House to deliver the bad news. It's important to do that. But that's not going to interfere with what we do on this bill.
We're going to do everything within our power to make sure that this bill is passed, that it gets an open hearing. That's something that's been absent for four years in the House is an open, honest, transparent debate on the war in Iraq. We tried to have it last year, and as you know, the then-majority changed the Murtha bill to something other than the Murtha bill and we didn't even get to do it after we were promised that we'd be able to do it. So we're beginning that process now.
REP. THOMPSON: I couldn't hear what you said.
Q Is it your preference -- (inaudible) -- not your bill but the non-binding.
REP. THOMPSON: My preference to start on this? It was my preference to start this four years ago. I think we're long overdue. And if we could do it today, I'd like to do it. If next week is when we start, that's when we start. I want to get this out. I want to get the debate going on this. I want the American people to participate. I want them to be fully engaged. The American people are way ahead of us on this issue, and we need to bring it to the forefront.
SEN. OBAMA: Just one comment, picking up on what was said earlier about the troops and how they might respond. I mean, I'm extraordinarily gratified that you've got two decorated war heroes here. I would challenge anybody to suggest that these two gentlemen aren't concerned about troops on the ground. They've been there and their hearts bleed every time they get reports that a brave American soldier has been killed or wounded. I personally have to talk to families back home in Illinois about this.
Now, all of us recognize that the military has an important role in our national security and that there's going to be some sacrifice involved whenever we're involved in a conflict, which is why we want to make absolutely sure that troops on the ground have the equipment and the support that they need.
But what we also have to do is to make sure that the civilian leadership in Washington are providing strategies that give the extraordinary bravery that's being provided by these troops some opportunity to succeed. And that's what's -- I've been forthcoming, and I think that's what's been so frustrating to the American people. And that's what I think is frustrating to many military families as well.
So what we have here is a bill that says, "Let's set up a strategy for changing the dynamic on the ground. Let's have flexibility. Let's have the commanders on the ground have the capacity to make adjustments as we're moving forward." If the political situation improves such that the presence of American troops is actually helpful in the stabilization process, then there's going to be opportunities to make these adjustments.
What we are saying is, in the absence of those political changes in Iraq, no matter how brave and how outstanding a performance is being turned in by the U.S. military, we're going to continue to see the problems that we've got right now.
Let's take a -- Dennis, you get the last word.
Q Senator, to what degree is the war in Iraq affecting your decision or involvement in presidential politics?
SEN. OBAMA: Well, as I think you know, Dennis -- you know, you were there -- it affected my decision to enter into the U.S. Senate race back in 2002. It's an issue that I felt very strongly about at the time. I believe that the president had not made the case that there were weapons of mass destruction that would threaten U.S. interests. I thought that it would be an open-ended commitment.
I had no doubt that our armed forces would perform magnificently and sweep through Baghdad. My concern was, "What are we going to do with this occupation?" And there didn't seem to be a clear exit strategy. And that has been a consistent position that I've taken ever since I announced my race for the U.S. Senate.
I do believe that the next president is still going to be dealing with many of the issues that we currently confront in Iraq. One of the things that I think all three of us share is the belief that there are no great options right now out there. You know, we should have thought a lot of this stuff through before we went in. We did not. We now have bad options and worse options.
And we recognize, by the way, that there are risks entailed in our approach like there are risks in any approach that's taken. But what I believe is -- well, let me put it this way. This is what I would do if I were president right now. And I feel very -- I feel a great sense of responsibility on this issue, that if I'm running for the presidency, that this stands outside of politics; that you don't just throw out proposals because you know you can score some political points. You know, I think any presidential candidate has a sacred duty to make sure that whatever they're saying on this topic is what they truly believe is the best possible policy for the United States' long-term national security interests and the well-being of our troops.
Q Thank you.
SEN. OBAMA: Okay. Thank you, guys.
REP. THOMPSON: Thank you.
REP. MURPHY: Thank you so much.